Born April 22, 1792 (Nissan 30, 5552), Uriah Phillips Levy was 10 years old when he ran away to sea. He returned two years later, as he’d promised his mother, to prepare for his bar mitzvah. Then he apprenticed to a Philadelphia ship owner. In our day of wooden men and iron ships, “learning the ropes” is a cliché. To Levy, it was life and death. A square-rigger has more than 200 ropes (called lines), each has a name and a function, and Levy had to know them all. To confuse a clew line with a halyard, or a lee brace with a weather backstay, could mean a dismasted ship and the endangerment of all aboard her.
Within nine years, as Levy wrote, “I passed through every grade of service—cabin boy, ordinary seaman, able-bodied seaman, boatswain, third mate, second mate, first mate, to that of captain...” In 1809, while on shore leave in Tortola, a British press gang seized him. He was carrying his papers. However, a Royal Marine sergeant sneered, “You don’t look like an American to me. You look like a Jew.” Levy replied, “I am an American and a Jew.” “If the Americans have Jew peddlers manning their ships, it’s no wonder they sail so badly,” the Royal Marine replied. Levy hit him full in the face. Hitting a Royal Marine in the face is almost invariably a mistake. When Levy came to in the brig of HMS Vermeer, the officer of the watch was shoving a New Testament at him and demanding he swear himself into the Royal Navy. Levy refused, saying, “I am an American and I cannot swear allegiance to your king. And I am a Jew, and do not swear on your testament, or with my head uncovered.” Somehow, he gained an audience with Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, who agreed that his papers were valid and ordered him released.
In 1811, at 19, he became master and part owner of the brig George Washington. He nailed a mezuzah outside his cabin door, a small box containing Biblical verses that signified his cabin was a Jewish home. When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, Levy entered the U.S. Navy as a sailing master. Levy was captured when his ship was taken by a British warship. He was imprisoned at Dartmoor for 16 months, during a winter so cold the Thames froze solid to the bottom. He learned French and fencing; he failed only in organizing a congregation among the prisoners for want of a minyan, the traditional quorum of 10.
On his return, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Franklin. At a ball in June 1816, Lieutenant William Potter, an anti-Semite, bumped into Levy three times. Levy slapped Potter. Potter shouted, “You damned Jew!” Levy replied, “That I am a Jew I neither deny nor regret.” The next morning, Potter sent Levy a written challenge. On June 21, 1816, they met in a meadow in New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia. When asked if he had anything to say, Levy recited a Hebrew prayer. Then he suggested that they abandon the matter as ludicrous. Potter called him a coward. “You’re a fool,” Levy replied, who was a crack shot.
They stepped off 20 paces. Potter shot and missed four times. Each time, Levy fired into the air. Potter fired a fifth time, nicking Levy’s ear, screamed, “I mean to have his life,” and began reloading. Perhaps sensing that Potter might be finding his range, Levy then took aim for the first time that morning and squeezed the trigger. Potter was dead before he hit the ground.
Within a month, Levy had an argument with a Marine officer in Franklin’s wardroom, ending when the two men were separated after the Marine called Levy a damned Jew. Each was court-martialed for ungentlemanly and unofficer-like conduct, found guilty, and sentenced to be reprimanded by the Secretary of the Navy. It was the first of Levy’s six courts-martial. Nonetheless, on March 5, 1817, President James Monroe signed Levy’s commission as a lieutenant. He was the second Jew to become a naval officer and would be the first to make it his career. He was then assigned to duty in the U.S.S. United States. Her captain, William Crane, wrote a letter to his superior officer finding Levy personally objectionable. Crane court-martialed Levy within the year for a petty infraction, sentencing him to be dismissed from the service; President Monroe ordered the decision reversed.
In U.S.S. Guerriere, Levy was court-martialed on February 12, 1819 for his language in rebuking another officer and sentenced to be dismissed from the service. Again, Monroe reversed the decision. In U.S.S. Spark, he was court-martialed on June 8, 1821 for calling another officer “a great many unsavory names.” This time he was sentenced to reprimand by his commanding officer.
After seven years in the Navy, he had been court-martialed four times, and he wasn’t yet 30 years old. A sailor of great professional skill, efficiency, and courage, he was proud, arrogant, and self-righteous. He was also a Jew with no tolerance for anti-Semitic insults. Last, he was a crusader for an unpopular cause: the abolition of flogging in the Navy.
Levy saw his first flogging on United States. A sailor had been sentenced to 12 lashes on each of three charges. After the man was tied to a grating, the boatswain took the first swing with a cat-o’-nine-tails. By the fifth stroke, the man’s flesh had opened. By the 12th, his back was a mass of chewed flesh, and his blood dripped down onto the deck. After each stroke, the boatswain ran the tails of the lash through his fingers to comb out the bits of flesh clinging to the leather. After the 20th blow, the boatswain took up a fresh cat. At the 30th lash, the sailor passed out. A bucket of salt water was splashed over his back and he received the final lashes.
Levy, utterly revolted, found it barbarous and degrading. He claimed it was also ineffective because it embittered rather than reformed the criminal. His fellow officers found this subversive of discipline. Thus, he became doubly a pariah.
Nonetheless, six years passed before his fifth court-martial aboard U.S.S. Cyane. He was found guilty of using bad language and challenging two other officers to duels and sentenced to be “reprimanded publicly on the quarterdeck of every vessel of the Navy in commission, and at every Navy Yard in the United States.” In 1838, he was ordered to Pensacola to take command of the U.S.S. Vandalia. The 18-gun sloop was barely afloat and her officers and crew a congregation of thieves, misfits, and drunkards. Within six months, he entirely rehabilitated the ship and took her on patrol in February 1839.
He abolished corporal punishment aboard Vandalia. Instead, he resorted to public humiliations. A man caught stealing was forced to wear a wooden sign lettered “Thief” and a man found drunk on duty would wear a bottle-shaped sign lettered, “A Drunkard’s Punishment.” I was unable to find what he did in cases of sodomy.
Three years later, the Navy court-martialed him for his “cruel and scandalous” methods of punishment. The court-martial ruled that Levy be dismissed from the Navy. President John Tyler reportedly laughed aloud when he read the report. The President asked whether substituting such punishments for 12 strokes of the cat merited Levy’s dismissal from the service. He mitigated Levy’s sentence to one year’s suspension. Then he promoted Levy to captain.
Meanwhile, Levy’s real estate investments on Duane and Greenwich Sts. in Manhattan made him a wealthy man. His means let him indulge his interests, including his admiration for Thomas Jefferson. In 1833, he commissioned a statue of Jefferson, which now stands in the Capitol rotunda. His gift of a full-sized bronze copy stands in the Council chambers in New York City Hall. On May 20, 1836, he bought Jefferson’s home, Monticello, for $2700. Levy would not let his hero’s mansion fall into ruin. He slowly restored each room, often repairing and rebuilding them himself, and recovered many of Jefferson’s original furnishings. When he was done, he opened the house to the public.
In 1855, Congress enacted the Naval Reform Act, largely to rid the Navy of superfluous officers. A board of 15 senior officers met secretly to purge the Navy list. One of the victims was Levy, who was cashiered for inefficiency. Congress then amended the law to permit dismissed officers to present their case before a board of inquiry. In November 1857, Levy had his hearing. A long string of officers testified against him: their vague, fact-free testimony failed to conceal their detestation of the Jew as well as the man. Levy presented 13 active duty and nine retired naval officers, who testified to his competence, courage, and effectiveness. He then presented 53 character witnesses, including former Secretary of the Navy and historian George Bancroft, governors, senators, congressmen, bank presidents, merchants, doctors, and editors. Bancroft confirmed Levy had been purged “because he was of the Jewish persuasion.” The hearing massively embarrassed the Navy.
On December 19, 1857, Levy began his testimony, which required three days. It was magniloquent: “My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors…” He boomed on to his main theme: “I am an American, a sailor, and a Jew.”
At the end, there was a moment’s silence before the explosion of cheers, the hats flung in the air, the wild applause. On December 24, 1857, he was restored to active duty.
On February 21, 1860, 43 years after President Monroe had made Levy a lieutenant, President James Buchanan gave him command of the Mediterranean Squadron. With command came what was then the Navy’s highest rank: Commodore. The American fleet and frigates from Russia and Sardinia boomed out a 13-gun salute in the harbor at La Spezia as the pennant bearing a single star ran up the main mast of his flagship, U.S.S. Macedonian, which had been rebuilt from yet another British frigate taken in battle by U.S.S. Constitution.
On July 12, 1860, the Commodore saluted the Stars and Stripes and walked down Macedonian’s gangplank for the last time. Yet his country had use for him: President Lincoln apparently suggested to Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, that Levy’s unique experience of the military justice system should not be wasted. The old sailor’s last assignment has a distinct touch of Lincoln’s humor: President of the Naval Court-Martial Board.
In the late winter of 1862, Levy came down with pneumonia. He died in his house at 107 St. Mark’s Pl. in Manhattan on March 22, 1862 (Adar II 20, 5622). Four days later, after Rabbi Lyons of Congregation Shearith Israel conducted services at Levy’s house, the Navy paid him honor, if only to be sure that he was dead. Six sailors shouldered his coffin down the stairs to the hearse. Three companies of Marines snapped to attention. U.S.S. North Carolina’s band struck up the “Dead March” from Handel’s Saul. Three captains and three lieutenants served as his pallbearers.
His will reflects his generosity and vanity. He must’ve been proud of the clause that reads: “I give, devise, and bequeath my Farm and Estate at Monticello, in Virginia, formerly belonging to President Thomas Jefferson… to the people of the United States.” He also must’ve loved the clause allocating funds for his monument in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn: “A full length statue, in Iron or Bronze of the size of life at least, standing on a single Block of Granite sunk three feet in the ground, and in the full uniform of a Captain in the United States Navy, and holding in its hand a Scroll on which it shall be inscribed “Under this Monument,” or “In Memory of” Uriah P. Levy, Captain in the United States Navy, Father of the law for the abolition of the barbarous practice of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States...”
The Navy’s official website for naval history includes Levy’s portrait in full dress. In World War II, the destroyer escort U.S.S. Levy was named in his honor. The Jewish chapels at Naval Station Norfolk and at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis are named for him. His bronze statue was finally raised in 2011 at Congregation Mikvah Israel in Philadelphia, where he had taken his bar mitzvah in 1807.